Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Chanel No.46: fragrance review & history

Amidst the fragrances that Gabrielle Bonheur (Coco) Chanel commisioned, No.46 stands as something of a largely unknown enigma. When Ernest Beaux had presented samples to Coco for her choosing for her first perfume launch, he had prepared 10 of them in total, numbered from 1 to 5 and from 20 to 24. Among them, No.5 and No.22 were the winning contestants, issued on 1921 and 1922 respectively. Fragrances so elevated by the diffusion of their aldehydic pitch that they became synonymous with the genre forever after. A little on their left, the refined, gracefully soft aldehydic floral which was released much later; in 1946, at the end of the war. No.46 recalls most vividly the ambience of the classic No.5 that cemented the popularity of futuristic, "frozen" bouquets, while remaining surrounded by other obscure scents with digits on them like fairy godmothers: No.11, No.14, No.20, No.21 and No.55...

Chanel No.46 fragrance perfumeshrine

The timing for the release of No.46 is crucial in its critical appraisal and its positioning in fragrance history. Despite the fashion genius of Chanel being “incorruptibly sober and pure”, as per her biographer Edmonde Charles-Roux, her life presented certain disputable facets that cast a shadow on the image of the "women's liberator from fashion's oppression" and Evangelist of Style. (Even today, Audrey Tautou who impersonated her in the 2009 film Coco avant Chanel mentioned this early feminist "manifesto" as grounds for accepting the role.) Coco had been self-exiled in Switzerland since 1945, her perfume royalties into exile with her for a decade as well, following the tempestuous reception that accompanied her affair with Hans Gunther von Dincklage; a German officer 13 years her junior ~she was 56 at the time~ and alleged Nazi spy by the nickname "the sparrow", who had arranged for her to remain at the famous Ritz Hotel suite which Coco had made into her wartime abode (and her "real" home for 3 decades, as opposed to her Rue Cambon appartment where she received guests). Additionally, the dubious Operation Modelhut, in which she was implicated, was based on the idea that one of Chanel's friends would pass a letter from her, suggesting secret negotiations furthering the end of war, to Winston Churchill.

“This woman was referred to as a person Churchill knew sufficiently to undertake political negations with him, as an enemy of Russia and as desirous of helping France and Germany whose destinies she believed to be closely linked together.” [according to the Schellenberg interrogation transcripts]
Yet unlike women collaborators who had had their hair shorn in public humiliations or Diana Mitford, Lady Mosley (Hitler's Angel) and Unity (Valkyrie) Mitford, forever associated with the Third Reich, Coco Chanel remained untarnished by repercussions (she was arrested but soon released). No doubt she had taken advantage of her connections, as was her custom: It was a rich boyfriend who helped her open her own clothing boutique in 1913; it was Vera Bate Lombardi who established her name amongst European royalty and through which she met ~her almost husband~ the Duke of Westminster and who possibly served as the connection to Churchill; and it was one of her unnamed powerful liaisons who made if possible for her to escape punishment or humiliation for her past.
The cool reception that the French reserved for her 1956 runway comeback terming it obsolete neverthless was testament to how they hadn't forgotten... Luckily for her, however, it was the Anglosaxons (in the guise of Americans mostly) who loved her little black dresses (they still do!) and thus helped her progressively obliterate the bad memories.

It was during those troubled years of WWII that Chanel had tried to wrest control of her fragrances from the Jewish manufacturers ~the Wertheimer family who own them to this day and also controlled Bourjois~ exploiting the pro-Aryan laws to her benefit. (The Wertheimers owned 70% of the house, Theodile Bader of Galleries Lafayette who introduced Coco to them was rewarded with 20% and Chanel herself only held 10%). As a result, the perfumes conceived in the time frame surrounding WWII are rumoured to generally have a striking resemblance to her already successful 20s and 30s creations, probably in an attempt to reposition herself in the fragrance producing pantheon as an independent entity. Little is known of them, but the time framing bears significance as in 1954 the Wetheimers came to an agreement with Chanel for her to reliquinsh all control to them in exchange for having her personal expenses taken care of for life (It took 17 years).

The way that a little No.46 came into my hands is episodic and worthy of recounting à la Lafontaine: Once upon a time, (then) Florentine-bound Liisa Wennervirta had come across and purchased a full stoppered bottle of said perfume on an auction site, about which she asked my opinion and info after the fact. Certain details had been negatively indicative to its authenticity (or so I thought at the time) and the cynical/distrustful in me sighed a bit inwardly (I repeat this was after the fact) because I really like Liisa, had followed the scandals by Polkadot Patty a couple of years ago and would really flinch if she had been scammed. On the other hand, if it was a fake I would be supremely curious to see how someone would venture into even attempting it and would admire his/her serious cojones despite my disgust at the practice. Liisa sent me some to try out and it transpired that it was against all odds seriously delightful juice!
As Liisa herself said: "It's not that grandma-style rose like Penhaligon's Elizabethan Rose, nor that sweet, slightly sickening rose of Nahema or Mahora in extrait version, it's warm, spicy, carnation-y and slightly reminds me of Fleur de Feu but after a while it mellows to sweet musky calmness. Something that I badly miss among Les Exclusifs."

The opening of Chanel No.46 boldly reveals the penchant of the brand into producing abstractions of an arresting grace. It is redolent of the ambience of No.5 quite vividly, to the point that a lover of one might instantly recognise sub-themes in the structure of the other, like a student of baroque fugues recognising the intermingling motifs across several bars of music. At the time however No.5 hadn't acquired the cult status it has today being instantly recognisable across continents. The basic chord which echoes throughout No.46 seems to be the rose, ylang-ylang, carnation/lily (a hint of spice) and musks (two parts of this harmony form the main basso continuo of No.5, anyway, especially in vintage parfum form and the defunct Eau de Cologne version). This is underscored by a soapy-mossy feeling that recalls retro grooming products to my memory. The musks are especially rich and radiant, emitting warmth and a subtle come-hither.

In its way, Chanel No.46 is firmly placed in the tradition of its times too, while echoing an established success: Smelling it alongside L'Air du Temps (1948) (its carnation tinge plus aldehydic-salicylate facets), the more orientalised Fath de Fath (the original 1953 version, not the 1993 reformulation) with its intensely musky base, or the delicate bouquet of Coeur Joie by Nina Ricci (1946), one is not hard-pressed to understand the greater need for fragrances that presented a refined and genteel ambience of ladies who eased back into their feminine endeavours after the more androgynous occupations of the war days. All without eschewing their animal instincts...

Notes for Chanel No.46:
Top: bergamot, orange and neroli
Heart: rose, lily of the valey, ylang-ylang and jasmine
Base: vetiver, orris, sandalwood, coumarine, vanilla and musk

Needless to say, it's a very rare fragrance and your only chance for a bottle would be buying off a collector.

Related reading on Perfume Shrine: Chanel reviews & news, Vintage scents

Pic of No.46 by Liisa Werenvita used with permission by Perfume Shrine. Photo of Gabrielle Chanel in 1909 scanned from Edmonde Charles Roux book 2004, p.62. Photo of Diana and Unity Mitford saluting the Nazi way via wikimedia commons.


  1. Fiordiligi08:49

    Oooh, fascinating piece today, dearest E! Perfume and the Mitfords - two of my favourite topics. and anything about Coco herself is always fascinating.

    I do actually possess some of the No 46 (a very small amount). I have never tried it but will do so after I come off my self-imposed Guerlain Month this weekend. If it has anything of the Fleur de Feu in it then I shall love it!

  2. I am just back from holidays and catching up with your ever lovely blog with a cup of coffee. I adored reading this post- Coco really was an enigma and above all a survivor wasn’t she- I would have loved to meet her to see what she was like. No 46 sounds as intriguing. As I am sure I have said before I am not a big fan of either No 5 or No 22 although I admire the work in them and their place in history- I am far more of a Cuir De Russie/ Bois De Illes and No 19 person. That said to smell No 46 is really to get close to history and must have been wonderful. Thanks for sharing as always.

  3. Jam packed with details and intrigued! Great work, Helg.

    Coco herself deserves a thorough discussion, so I shall focus on the case of No.46. I had just seen a listing for an unusual "number", so you post is timely in so many ways. Transition clothing, transition perfumes...even transition characters in the movies...rather interesting stuff. Makes my Nana's scents of choice all the more full of meaning--she never gave up the job she got during the war, and she tended to wear chypres.

    Thanks so much for your piece.

  4. kathleen14:03

    This was very interesting. Thank you, E.

  5. I've never read a review for 46, so thank you. I always come at vintage reviews a bit half-heartedly though, because if I end up swoony over the scent, I know I can't afford to have it. This one might not have worked for me anyway, because of the lily (which almost always blooms OVERPOWERINGLY on me, though I won't write it off because you never know). But the rose and ylang-ylang sounds promising.

    Also, the photo of the sunlight caught inside the bottle was gorgeous, but made me goofily anxious! They're always telling us not to put our bottles in the sunlight! I feel like I'm supposed to be hoarding them away in the darkness like gollum, which is such a shame because the pretty sunshine-yellow of my Mitsouko bottle is so gorgeous and distracting, caught in the sunlight. I just want to line them all up in my window and let the light play in them. So pretty!

  6. Prosetry,
    you're right, perfumes should be stored in a dark place.
    I was taking pics of a few perfumes I wanted to write about, it was late afternoon and my windows face west... so I looked out and there was that dramatic sky and sun was low and had the same colour as the juice so I couldn't resist. After all, those few minutes couldn't do that much damage. Also, it masks the tattered label.
    Another pic from the same series is here, direct sunlight and the same windowsill used for another effect
    http://underthecupola.blogspot.com/2009/09/bal-dafrique-perfume-review-or.html because nothing works the way sunrays do.

  7. Wonderful post as always, E.! Great writing and research. I think the forays into history as linked to scents are my favorites. That picture of the women saluting about made me sick though!

  8. D,

    hi darling!

    Well, isn't that just wonderful. I am glad you enjoyed it!
    By all means, I would be most interested in your take on No.46, as I know your classical tastes.

    BTW, I wouldn't want you to think of me as ungrateful, as I haven't received that little Museum thing in the mail. :-( I believe it had something to do with the UK postal strike. Grrrr....

  9. K,

    oh, I bet you had a lovely time, eh? Welcome back!
    Thanks so much for the kind words.
    Coco Chanel was a fascintating woman and all fascinating women have some darker corners in them, don't they. I share your taste although I have to admit that the work on No.5 and No.22 is exquisite. I should tackle No.5 because it has such a wonderful -and not completely known- history behind it ;-)
    Yes, No.46 is really nice!

  10. S,

    thank you for saying so, I'm flattered and you're welcome.

    There is indeed something of a socio-study in the transition periods and their products, it needs someone to tackle it in regards to scent.
    Your Nana sounds like a strong woman! Good on her.

  11. K,

    thank you for stopping by and commenting! Glad you found it worthwhile.

  12. Prosetry,

    you're welcome. I have to point out that the impression of lily is just my own, I don't think there is an official description of notes stating lily. It's something between lily and carnation, it's quite subtle and there is an orris-violet facet too (earthy with a subtle spiciness).

    The photo is by Liisa, who does know better, so she only brings those out for the photo opportunities and then takes them back at the wings, like good actresses. :-)
    I don't think there would be much harm in just putting your bottles on the window sill for a few minutes to take a picture. Just don't forget them there! :-)

  13. L,

    it's true that sunlight makes for stunning photos. I have taken my best in natural sunlight and our climate is soooo simpatico to that sort of honeyed, warm, graceful light that it would be a shame not to use it! (Painters have, so why not us?)
    And kudos on the pic!

  14. D,

    thanks!! Historical posts do have a fond place in my heart :-)
    I paused to think about the pic choices and then I decided to put the girls saluting pic because it strikes me how very antithetical is the vision of "innocent", young, nubile, beautiful girls with an ideology so infested with hate: makes one think, doesn't it. So, I know it's not immediately pleasing, but it ties with the theme at hand ~which is a respected luxury fashions icon showing a nasty face.

  15. Verrrrrrrry stimulating ... and beautifully researched! I'd give my right arm to smell this stuff!

    On a side note, could you tell me how the original Fath de Fath compares with its 90s successor?


  16. Great review, E!

    I do like the sound of No. 46 - as something between grandma and technicolour.

    I never knew Coco only owned 10% of the fragrance arm of her business. Is that normal practice? I suppose it's like floating a company, exchanging shares for capital in order to expand.

    I did watch Coco Avant Chanel when it was released in Adelaide - I really enjoyed it and fell a little in love with Arthur 'Boy' Capell played by the delicious Alessandro Nivolo (if memory serves me right)!

  17. On a side note, two days ago, one No. 46 sold on that auction site and a buddy from one of the perfume forums I attend didn't have anything better to do than brag. Since the fragrance in question screamed WRONG! even on the pictures, I made several equivalents of loud headdesks. The unlucky buyer is somehow cancelling the transaction now... so should there be the non-winning bidder, you know where to find me....

  18. I'm always so grateful for all these historical insights, my dearest.

    Beautifully written and thoughtfully delivered.

  19. Anonymous22:41

    Chanel is always one of a kind ... i love what they do for their scents ... the new la prairie stuff is taking their advice ... the new videos are great www.lifethreads.com

  20. Scentimentalist,

    thanks! Much appreciated :-)
    If I recall correctly the newer Fath is more of a spicy vanillic oriental with boozy fruity notes, while the vintage seemed more balsamic/resinous to me and less "in your face".

  21. Audit,

    you're very kind!
    I believe that lots of designers hold only a small part in their own companies, due to the capital necessitated to expand. Therefore...
    Glad you enjoyed the film, can you believe I haven't watched it yet? I really want to see the Mouglalis version too! (have a soft spot for Anne)

  22. L,

    oh, bummer for the (un)lucky winner...It breaks my heart to hear of these things, it really does. I sure hope it's not the same despicable scammer behind these things again. :-(

  23. Ida,

    you're very kind to say so (as always!)
    Hope you're having a good time, as good as it can be and lots of (((hugs))) for your beautiful thread on your mother's anniversary the other day...

  24. Anon,

    gotcha!! If you need to spread the word, at least do it on relevant posts (as you did with the La Prairie review and I didn't say anything), not all over please.

  25. Just re-reading this article, through your link. Very very interesting and informative. CC was lucky indeed to escape the post-War purges. Being the once lover of the richest man in England probably helped. Proof if need be that politically, as with most things, Gabrielle was self-serving and manipulative. I haven't gotten round to reading the famous biography by Charles-Roux but I really really should. I guess they will never make that sequel now, Coco Apres Chanel! ;)

    I would love to try No46. One day, perhaps.

  26. Claude16:19

    August 20 2011
    just been on your blog.
    i found today, in an estate sale an unopened bof of Chanel 1946. it was most probably purchased in Paris in 1946 or so by a high ranking US officer prior to his return to the US.
    The box is still seales and therefore this fragrance has never seen the daylight!
    It will be shortly on eBay.
    thank you for all your info.
    kind regards

  27. I have an unopened bottle of no. 46 in the original box. I am sure my dad brought it to my mom after the war or sent it to her during the reconstruction of Germany. Would it's fragrance have soured?


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